Catholic Church Rejects Claim That Sanders' Wife Caused Financial Harm

Jan 11, 2016

The vice-chairman of the Vermont Republican Party says Bernie Sanders’ wife has exacted a severe financial toll on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. But the bishop who oversees the Catholic Church in Vermont says the accusation is without merit.

Brady Toensing, a lawyer, political operative and veteran opposition researcher, filed a complaint Sunday with the U.S. Attorney in Vermont seeking a federal investigation of Jane Sanders’ tenure as president of Burlington College.

The complaint centers on the sale of the diocese’s 32-acre headquarters to Burlington College in 2010, and the subsequent financial problems at Burlington College that resulted in the diocese receiving only about $8 million of the original $10 million sale price.

Toensing alleges that financial malfeasance by Sanders – he alleges she perpetrated federal loan fraud by overstating the value of donations that would be available to underwrite the purchase – precipitated fiscal conditions that resulted in $2 million in losses to the diocese. And he says the harm to the church should figure in authorities’ decision about whether or not to pursue a federal probe.

“The public harm in this case is substantial, and should be a part of your decision whether to open an investigation or to pursue charges,” Toensing writes in his letter to U.S. Attorney Eric Miller.

Toensing also requested a probe by the Inspector General of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

“The loss of $2 million as a result of Ms. Sanders’ apparent misconduct will materially detract from (the charitable work of the Church) and cause significant harm to vulnerable Vermonters.”

Bishop Christopher Coyne, however, says the harm to which Toensing refers does not exist. And he says the church wants no part in any political grudge match.

“We don’t obviously want to get involved in any political battle involving presidential candidates,” Coyne said Monday afternoon. “We’re not pushing this at all. We’re satisfied with the outcome (of the sale to Burlington College).”

Coyne says an appraisal of the property prior to the sale yielded a $6 million valuation.

“At the time, we were very satisfied with the $10 million purchase price on a property that was assessed … at $6 million. So the offer from Burlington College was about $4 million more than the property was worth,” says Coyne, who was not bishop at the time of the transaction.

A portion of that purchase price was structured in the form of a $3.65 million loan from the diocese to the college. In August of 2014, the college defaulted on that loan. Under the terms of a settlement, the diocese ended up losing somewhere between $1.5 million and $2 million off the original purchase price, according to reporting by VTDigger.

Coyne, however, says that’s still more than the property was appraised at.

“We’re very satisfied with the outcome at the end, even though we didn’t receive the full $10 million,” Coyne says of the settlement. “We walked away with a pretty good price, and at this point we’re not interested in pursuing any further matter in this.”

Coyne said Toensing didn’t reach out to him, or any other employee or agent of the diocese, prior to filing the complaint alleging harm to the church.

Toensing instead filed the complaint on behalf of Wendy Wilton, a former Republican senator from Rutland County who ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2012, and who, Coyne says, “happens to be Catholic.”

Toensing, who says he too is Catholic, says the harm to the church is extensive, whether Coyne recognizes it or not.

“I know Catholics who donate significant amounts of money to the church, and they’re upset when they find out … that the church has missed out on almost $2 million from this transaction,” Toensing says. “Is the church really saying it has so much money that it can do without $2 million? That is absurd.”

Toensing says the church incurred the losses because Jane Sanders misrepresented on federal loan documents the value of future contributions that Burlington College had secured from donors. He says failure of those contributions to materialize deteriorated the institution’s financial condition to the point that it defaulted on its loan to the diocese.

Sanders left the college in 2011, after the initial sale but before the college defaulted on the loan.